After having recited the mantra, “No Conclusions Can Be Drawn From This Game” before each of our preseason outings, I am now going to draw some conclusions about our preseason in its totality. It can hardly have escaped the notice of any serious follower of the team that a great change is aborning at the JW. We all heard Porter’s statements when he was hired about how he wanted to change the style that the team played. This was nice to hear, but it was just talk at that point. Lots of people say lots of things when they get hired, things about how they want to create change and to plot a new course. I think it is fair to say at this point that Porter has walked the walk, not just talked the talk, in terms of change.
Nothing about this team was clearer than that a new direction was required. The overarching theme of last season was that the Timbers were not just a team that played badly; they were a team with no idea of how to play better. Nothing was more depressing to me than the repeated sight of Portland working the ball up the flanks into a cul-de-sac, or just humping it aimlessly up the pitch in the hopes that Kris Boyd would somehow dig it out and hold it up. It was not just that the team had no plan B. They didn’t even have a viable plan A. Looking back at the matches that we won last year, they have the feel of statistic anomalies, or of moments at which our opponents didn’t take the opportunities that we presented to them. If there is one truth about the team so far this year, it is that they have a clear idea of what they are trying to do, and how they are going to go about accomplishing it. They are still a ways away from having everything click, but even at this point they are miles ahead of the very best they were last season, and that in itself is something about which we can be pleased.
There are a lot of ways that you could look at what we’ve seen so far. For the sake of clarity (my own as much as anyone else’s) I thought I would break it down into the optimistic and pessimistic approaches.
What the pessimist would say:
Sure, they move the ball around better than they did, but they are still short of end product and they squander lots of chances. The defense has had moments when they were a shambles. We’ve got two fullbacks who like to get forward but who have a tendency to leave their center backs exposed. This is all the worse because things at center half are in a state of flux. Injuries and changes in personnel mean that we enter the season without a solid pairing at center half. Better teams than we faced in preseason, or teams actually playing their real first elevens, would have made us pay for our failures to clear our lines. It would be one thing if we had an athletic shot stopper like Perkins in goal, but the battle of egos that went on last season means that our corps of keepers runs a gamut from mediocre to simply not good enough (or not yet anyway). For a team that is looking to press and get players forward, this can be a recipe for the concession of a lot of goals. In midfield, Alhassan has improved, but he still has the tendency to sit too long on the ball. Although he’s adopted the philosophy with which Porter is imbuing this team, he still doesn’t have that instinct of moving the ball quickly and getting into space. Until he does, we are going to give the ball away in midfield a lot, and this is the kind of thing that is going to put a lot of pressure on our defense. Although Valeri has looked good, it is yet to be seen if he can manage the stress and strain of a full MLS season. If he gets injured, it leaves a big question in terms of who will be pulling the string and driving our attack forward. Finally, although there seems to be some improvement in the overall play of the team, they are clearly not really firing on all cylinders yet. It could be a month or more before they really have it together, and the first month of the season contains a lot of important matches.
What the optimist would say:
1. This team is playing with purpose and direction, very much in contrast to last season. They seem to have gotten the idea that it’s best to move the ball along quickly rather than sitting around and getting caught in possession, or waiting to get closed down and then letting the back line kick it around with each other. What one noticed in the preseason games was the good effect which moving the ball and running into space can have in and of itself. Good things happen when you don’t let the defense get comfortably in shape.
2. Valeri is looking like a pretty good buy. He sees the field well and like to put balls through to guys running on. He’s pretty decent from set pieces as well.
3. We now have a midfield that is really going to intimidate some people. Not only do we hold the ball much better than we used to, but the addition of Will Johnson has added a factor of nastiness that was lacking for much of last season. Chará took a lot of bookings, but that was mostly out of desperation because he was the only guy chasing people in the middle of the park. I will say too that Michael Harrington has really showed a love of physical play. He really hassles people and has showed zero tolerance for taking crap. I like that in a defender. Overall, this is a team with a lot more attitude, and the guts to back it up.
4. Sure, our defense has been a bit unsettled, but he signing of Sylvestre should go a long way toward sorting that out. You can pretty much play him with any of our other center backs and he’s going to improve them. Tucker-Gangnes has really impressed me as well. He’s biggish, and physical, but he’s also good on the ball and that is going to be essential for people who want to spend a lot of time on field in this system.
5. Ok, Kalif Alhassan has a ways to go, but he has come a long, long way from that shambles of a player that he was last season. He and Ryan Miller have some work to do in order to maximize their collaborative potential, but there has already been improvement over what we got out of that part of the pitch for the vast majority of last season.
6. Ryan Johnson is a major upgrade. Ok, he’s not Didier Drogba, but he knows where the goal is and the match against SJ showed that he can get there too. I have a suspicion the Frederic Piquionne might actually make the squad as well. In any case, we’re now miles ahead of where we were when Dike was the go to guy in that slot.
7. Darlington Nagbe seems to be figuring out how to play in wide areas of the pitch. I’ve been quite critical of this part of his game, but I think that he showed in the match against AIK that he can be effective and engaged out there, especially when working with Valeri and Harrington.
Ok, this column is late and I’ve gone on way too long. I suppose I’ll just have to do better next time.